The Joy of Suffering

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Bill Simons and Vinay Venkatesh

Paris

Roland Garros has been a tournament with more zigs and zags than an intro to a French history class. We’ve had late-night matches that almost kissed the dawn, a new No. 1, a shock injury, the prohibitive favorite saving a match point and a late-blooming Cinderella from Tuscany. And the King of Clay was dispatched back to Mallorca in the first round.

But until today’s semifinal between Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner, we haven’t really had an elite vs. elite heavyweight men’s battle.

Tennis has seen an inspiring array of mano a mano rivalries: Borg vs. McEnroe, McEnroe vs. Connors, Becker vs. Edberg, Sampras vs. Agassi, Federer vs. Nadal, Federer vs. Djokovic, Nadal vs. Djokovic.

Now, virtually every stargazer in the game is assuring us that Jannik Sinner vs. Carlos Alcaraz is “the” rivalry for the post-Big 3 era. The No. 1 22-year-old Italian is calm and confident. His game imposes. He has the best forehand-backhand combination since Stan Wawrinka.

Alcaraz is a natural. He plays with flair: power one moment, finesse the next. Speed, anticipation, uncanny instincts, flash forehands, half-volleys, dropshots and the occasional lob are his brand. Young, athletic, muscular and Spanish, he delights the eye.  

But at first, this day in Paris seemed to belong to the Italian. Gone was Sinner’s hip injury he’d recently suffered, and an illness that had flattened him for two weeks. Today, like a skier bursting out of the starting gate, Sinner came out fast. The 22-year-old from the Dolomites seemed to be zooming downhill.

Jannik’s groundies amaze. He paints the lines and runs his foes to the corners. For 20 minutes he didn’t lose a point on his serve and he took the first set 6-2. Today he seemed to toy with Carlos, the former No. 1, who has a Wimbledon and a US Open trophy on his mantle. “The defense from Sinner is incredible – he’s everywhere. The man has been like a machine. His shots are rockets,” observed Gigi Salmon.

And, as in the first set, Sinner broke and went up 2-0 in the second. Carlos’s coach, Juan Carlos Ferrero, called out, “Play with your heart.” But the good guy of the ATP tour shouted Djokovic-like expletives to his box. Now the question was: what could the overmatched Spaniard possibly do not to be blown away?

A huge sign on Court Chatrier says, “Victory belongs to the tenacious.” And remember, Alcaraz dropped the first set 6-1 in his semi against Sinner at Indian Wells before he stormed back and won. So, just like in their battle in the California desert, Carlos upped his aggression and counterattacked. He blasted a brilliant forehand, created angles, unleashed some nasty dropshots played Nadalian defense and was clutch on break points.

Sporting a bumble bee-like yellow and black kit, the bouncing Alcaraz set the packed crowd abuzz and won six of the next seven games to even the match at a set apiece.

Early in the third, Carlos sprinted to the corner and flicked an inspired backhand winner to go up 2-1. Now the stratospheric brilliance Sinner came back to earth. His dominance was in the rearview mirror.

Then Jannik’s right hand cramped and he started walking gingerly. On changeovers, the trainer massaged his hand and legs. Still the crowd chanted, “Allez, Jannik!” And Sinner got going. The battler who came from two sets down to win the Aussie Open final knows a thing or two about combat. He stroked an inspired backhand return of serve winner, and took five of the next six games to go up two sets to one.

But the magnificence of the Spaniard’s athletic genius inspires as much as it defies logic. Despite dealing with cramps himself, Carlos slapped a running forehand laser. He flicked a running lob winner over his 6’ 2” foe. His drop shots, dare we suggest, bring to mind the most delicate of butterflies. Alcaraz stormed back to claim the fourth set.

Great tennis rivals – friends and gladiators – were giving us a grand five-set battle. “Can these two do anything but epic?” one Los Angeles fan asked.

And Alcaraz continued to ascend. Sliding crosscourt, he flicked a backhand pass and hit a forehand winner, shouting, “Vamos!” Spanish flags flurred. Carlos SABAs (sneak attacks by Alcaraz) left Sinner hapless, as the Spaniard won five games in a row to go up 3-0.

Federer gave us grace. Nadal was the fiercest of muscular warriors. Djokovic’s core strength, his flexibility and his steely will took him to the very top.

Still, Alcaraz is something else. Tennis has never seen such a gifted and entertaining shotmaking wizard. He sprints with ease about the court and serves up a non-stop array of winners. Power, touch, feel, disguise – he redirects the ball with ease and scores a crosscourt drop-shot let-cord winner. Then he blasts a backhand winner from far off the court or slaps an astonishing forehand on the run.

Carlos soon stroked yet another down-the-line backhand to score a memorable 2-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 win.

He spoke of how the toughest matches in his young career have been against Jannik, here and at the US Open. He added, “You have to find joy in suffering. That’s the key…You will have to enjoy suffering.” But rarely has a Roland Garros throng enjoyed such suffering.

REFLECTIONS ON THE RENAISSANCE: Out of nowhere, the 15th century Renaissance blossomed. Forget plagues, famine and stagnant thinking. Those long-ago Italians called on their curiosity and creativity to innovate and shake things up. Painting, poetry, sculpture, science, literature and philosophy would never be the same.

According to the old record books, Leonardo da Vinci emerged in the rankings as No. 1. The versatile genius narrowly edged Michelangelo, whose talent hit a certain ceiling. Because they had such great strokes, painters Raphael and Titian cracked the top ten. A couple of futurists were also highly ranked. Galileo and Copernicus had their eyes on the stars. And a globetrotter from Genoa named Chris Columbus made the Top Five because it was said he “discovered” America.

But now let’s fast forward about four centuries, when fans in Paris are discovering a Renaissance of Italian tennis.

The movement here is being led by a Sinner. Although he fell today, Jannik won Down Under earlier this year, and on Monday he’ll be at the top of the rankings – No. 1.

Then there’s a little lady who’s made a big splash – the well-named 5’ 4” Jasmine Paolini. Her sweet run to the finals of both the singles and doubles has delighted us. Plus, there are a slew of top Italians near the top of the game. At Indian Wells, No. 123 Luca Nardi scored the upset of the year when he dismissed Djokovic. Italians Simone Bolelli and Andrea Vavassori are into the doubles final, and Italian junior stars are drawing attention. Mamma mia!

Scholars tell us that the original Renaissance emerged because of growing Italian wealth, a new middle class, generous patrons, good guys in the church and a bevy of brilliant individuals. But what’s the story behind Italy’s tennis Renaissance?

For decades, we’ve been chatting with Italy’s leading tennis journalist, Ubaldo Scanagatta, about pizza, pasta, gelato and the scooters he rents to zoom around town. Yesterday we approached the generous Florentine and he detailed his nation’s breakthrough.

For starters, Italy hosts 20 challengers. Wannabes can play at home, gain points, make money and build their careers. A network of private clubs and coaches have pushed tennis. Yes, the earlier success of US Open champion Flavia Pennetta and Wimbledon finalist Matteo Berrettini helped. Plus having four young players in the top 50 (Sinner, Lorenzo Musetti, Matteo Arnaldi and Lorenzo Sonego) is key. Young players think, “I just beat you in practice and then you went out and downed Djokovic. So why can’t I make it big time?”

The Italian Open now makes $170 million a year, and Italy’s federation actively helps private clubs. And it doesn’t hurt that the ATP is headed by the Italian Andrea Gaudenzi. Once the ATP Finals leaves Turin, it may well just go down la strada to Milan.

In the meantime, from the Eiffel Tower to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, all eyes are on Sinner, who is a generational talent, and the spunky Paolini, who’s crafted a sensational break-out run here like few others.

Until this year’s Australian Open, Jasmine was just another middle-of-the-pack worker hoping lightning would strike. She confided, “Every time I faced a big player, I had to do a miracle.”

Before this year, the 28-year-old had never made it beyond the second round of a major. Last year at this time she was playing in Croatia. But in February she won in Dubai, and here in Paris she downed two Grand Slam champs, Victoria Azarenka and Elena Rybakina, plus a probable future Slam star, Russian teen Mirra Andreeva, to reach the finals.

On court, as she scurried about, Jasmine displayed fan-friendly flair and poise. Off-court she beamed. Her press conferences were packed with words like “crazy,” “unbelievable” and, “really, really happy.” She gushed, “It’s impossible, but it’s true.” She insisted she’s “a normal person – nothing special.” Unlike Djokovic and Sinner, as a kid, she never dreamed of becoming a champion.

Yes, she suffered a bad loss at the Italian Open to Mayar Sharif, and her early practices in Paris were tense. But here at Roland Garros she spoke of her confidence, her belief and how it’s all a process.

Few think Jasmine’s chances in the final against the wonder of Wausau, Iga Swiatek, are sweet (Paolini is of Polish and Ghanaian heritage). But, like Carlos Alcaraz, she does have an enduring asset: she loves to smile.

She told Inside Tennis,  “My coach is always worried when I don’t smile in the practice, in the match. He said to me always to enjoy, to smile, because it’s important for myself, for me as a person.” She added that it all goes back to when she was five when she fell in love with tennis.

This week tennis fell in love with her.

JUST WONDERING: How rich would you be if you bet a bundle on Jasmine Paolini reaching the finals of both the singles and doubles? She and Sara Errani will face Coco Gauff and Katerina Siniakova for the doubles title.

ZVEREV SETTLES: Alexander Zverev settled his domestic abuse case in Berlin, paying $216,600 with no admission of guilt. He’s already made $681,000 by reaching the semis at Roland Garros. Never before have we seen such a significant out-of-court settlement before a player took the court for such a big match, Zverev’s semi vs. Casper Ruud.

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